Massachusetts Supreme Court Upholds Conviction for Online Harassment

Massachusetts Supreme Court Upholds Conviction for Online Harassment

In December he Massachusetts Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to a criminal harassment conviction stemming from online conduct.  In particular, the defendants engaged in a campaign of harassment against a married couple that included fake Craigslist ads for free golf carts or a motorcycle (with instructions to call the victim’s phone late in the evening), a threatening email, a false report of abuse against the couple to Child Protective Services and email and mail correspondence falsely suggesting the husband had molested a minor.

On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Court considered whether

  • whether a pattern of harassing conduct that includes both communications made directly to the targets of the harassment and false communications made to third parties through internet postings solely for the purpose of encouraging those parties also to engage in harassing conduct toward the targets can be constitutionally proscribed by the statute; and
  • whether, to the extent that this pattern of conduct includes speech,that speech is protected by the First

On the first question, the court noted

The craigslist postings were the equivalent of the defendants recruiting others to harass the victims and the victims alone. The causation link is satisfied. The defendants cannot launder their harassment of the Lyons family through the internet to escape liability.

On the second question, the court explained

The defendants do not claim that creating fictitious Internet postings and sending a letter falsely accusing someone of a crime constitute legal conduct. Their conduct served solely to harass the Lyonses by luring numerous strangers and prompting incessant late-night telephone calls to their home by way of false representations, by overtly and aggressively threatening to misuse their personal identifying information, and by falsely accusing Jim of a serious crime. Where the sole purpose of the defendants’ speech was to further their endeavor to intentionally harass the Lyonses, such speech is not protected by the First Amendment.

The full opinion is below.

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